My parents stealing a smoke break at my Masters graduation.

Notes from the working class?

When someone asks me about being from a working-class family, or about growing up in Campbelltown specifically, I often recite a story about visiting a careers advisor in the final year of high school. The high school itself is in an undesirable part of Sydney so the staff, especially the support staff, tended to come and go. As such, it was the first time I had met her, and as it was my final year she asked me about my plans for after I graduated. I told her that I really wanted to continue my studies at university and that I planned to go do a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney. A concerned look came across her face, and in the tone of someone prepared to share some hard facts with the naïve she said “Beau, you do know that at most only 10% of your graduating class will go to University, and those who do will mostly likely go to a University like UWS[1]?”. I remember only responding with a stumbled yes as she proceeded to warn me about having other options in case things didn’t work out. I left and tried to laugh it off with the defensive arrogance of the precocious.

I tell this simple story for two reasons, the first is that it shows the ways in which class is structural in a layered way. Money isn’t what was in question here, it was ambition. With a bit of pondering, a bunch of what ifs float to the surface. If I was at a more reputable school, would she have allowed me to hold such ambitions? or perhaps if the school was in a more desirable location this wouldn’t have been the first time I had met her and she would have had a more nuanced perspective on my future? If I wasn’t living on the outskirts of suburban Sydney, perhaps then logistically the University of Sydney would have been easier to manage and there would have been more precedent for my little dream. But instead a person who has never met me in my life was sitting in a tiny room in a run-down library telling me to downsize my dreams to something more appropriate for someone in my situation. Which leads me to the second reason I tell this story. The ability to see things as possible is a reoccurring theme when I think about my class background and compare it to my peers that I’ve met throughout my time in the sandstone universities and since then. For example, when I’ve told this story to friends from more ambitious schools and families, especially when we were all fresh from high school and running around comparing University Admissions scores and the like, what was also confronting for them was the low bar I had set myself. A Bachelor of Arts is seen as the easiest degree you can do, and even though it’s essential for someone eager to study the humanities, there are an assortment of double degree options, embedded advanced standing versions and other far more exclusive packages to ensure that someone won’t mistake you for a mere BA student. They couldn’t understand why my big dream was to “just” do a BA, I mean it all is covered by the government anyway?

This is one of the reasons that talking about class is so frustrating. It’s simultaneously all about access to money, and not about money at all. In discussions, to focus on it can seem self-indulgent, self-defeating and nebulous. People are quick to get defensive (“My parents worked hard!” “I worked so hard to get where I am”) and even I tend to get lost in the hedge maze of privileges, barriers and my own limitations. What I do know are some of the struggles my family went through. Some of my most vivid memories are about class and money; My mother on the verge of tears or angry at herself about not being able to pay the rent. Or me a bit older, shaming my mum about taking us into “$2 stores”. The anxiety about my school uniform always being the slightly wrong shade because we had to buy the uniforms at stores cheaper than the school store. The awkwardness of hitting puberty at the time me, my sister and my mother all had to share one room, waiting months to find a landlord that was willing to take a risk. Even now my body reflects those times. My teeth stand as a marker of this class history. In the last few years I’ve considered getting braces to get a more, uh, generic smile. The first orthodontist I went to was frustrated that I had left it so long. He went on and on about how much easier it would have been in my teens before my jaw fused. He wouldn’t drop it but I didn’t have the answer for him. Sometimes that kid in front of the $2 dollar store creeps back out.

Largely those memories are just memories now. As a single man with no dependents, an education (2 degrees now) and for the most part neurotypical, the options are there for me (in Australia) to be quite secure. This is why the lines of where being working-class begins and ends are so unclear. Where do I sit now that I have multiple degrees? How does the identity carry with me now that I live overseas? Does any form of financial or career success transform you? Can you become middle class? Am I already middle class or merely aspirational? Are creative pursuits like writing in and of themselves in conflict with a working-class identity? This is the whirlwind of questions and anxieties that emerge when I start thinking about writing about myself and where I sit within these structures.

When I first started at the University of Sydney[2] I was inevitably drawn to fellow students from the western suburbs[3] of Sydney, or those who came in from the country towns. This drawing towards those of shared class backgrounds and precarious economic positions happened so organically that it didn’t occur to me until after the friendships were formed and the bonds cemented. However, the “westies”[4] I did meet at the University were all from migrant families, and although we shared solidarity through coming from the cultural fringe/cringe of Sydney, upon getting to know them better I noticed a common difference — aspiration. Which is not to say I wasn’t aspirational, I was, but when we compared the ways our families viewed education, university and our futures the differences were stark. For them, the pressure for attending university had been felt early on, so had the pressure to utilise university to build a better life for themselves. For my family however, university is viewed with a distant praise. They are aware that it’s a good thing, something that Australia values but it’s not part of their worldview and they don’t really understand why you would want to attend something like that. These both had their advantages and disadvantages. Whereas I was given whole freedom in all my choices, my friends had to fight tooth and nail for things deemed too “impractical” — a creative degree for example. On the flip side, having family who understand what you’re going through and rooting for your success is a boon during the hard times. Instead these friendships became a bastion of support throughout those years — people who could mention Macarthur train station without it being the punch line of a bad joke about falling asleep on the train.

Now that I live in Indonesia, reflecting on class has been disorientating. My whiteness here explicitly shapes my entire encounter with the Indonesian class system. No matter my appearance, I’ll be assumed to be rich. Dress codes will be bent to allow me entry. Rules broken to avoid conflict. I’ll be assumed to be educated, and skilled. In fact, my skills and education will be consistently assumed to be better than Indonesians with similar qualifications. Class difference here is hyper visible, but to an Australian it can also seem confrontingly invisible. For example, I was sitting in a poetry event a few weeks ago, and a young Indonesian Chinese man was doing a spoken word piece about the idea of privilege in Jakarta. It was simple but effective, he drew on images of the loudspeakers of mosques, the constant questioning of his belonging, assumptions of his sexuality and his place as a man in modern Jakarta. However, any mention of class was absent. No mention of the expensive cafe we were in or the coded elitism of using English for a poem about privilege in Indonesia. Instead the poem ended, and soon after a poem about sexual harassment began with the line “I never read a newspaper or books…” and proceeded to demonise the working class as the embodiment of sexism in Indonesia. The previous poems that day, the ones by young straight men highlighting at length how the beauty of women make them feel, which to my ears were pretty much just street harassment by someone with a Masters degree, went by without comment.

I’m confronted by the ways in which my middle class and upper class friends in Indonesia will never experience “menial” labour, but instead go from their degrees to white collar professions reflective of their education. None of them will know the monotony of retail or the aching feet of hospitality. On the other end, I’m confronted with the lack of options for my working-class friends. The struggle to keep their head above water in a system focused on keeping them down. On finding work in a system largely based on referral and connections. There are no easy answers, these things are shocking because in Australia we have our own coded ways of speaking about class and exclusion that contrast with the systems here. In response, I have grown immensely more appreciative of some of the successes we have had in Australia. Of the endless work of unions to raise the minimum wage that took me through the last years of my degree, and far too many years after it. Deferred (perhaps endlessly deferred) university no-interest loans which made it possible for me to even dream of University in the first place. Student payments which made it possible for it to become an actual reality (with the help of indomie of course). It’s a stark reminder to have the knowledge, that had I been born in similar circumstance in Indonesia (or say even America for that matter), there is no way that university would have been possible. As time goes on, and I look back over the steps I’ve taken that got me to this point. I wonder what inspired me to “get out” of Campbelltown, what inspired me to want to go to University, to study. There are no clear answers. Just a shapeless drive for something else and push towards the unknown, contrary to the advice of career advisers.

[1] For those of you not from Sydney, UWS is the University of Western Sydney. A great university in its own right, especially for disciplines like teaching and nursing but with a far lesser reputation than one of the sandstone Universities like the University of Sydney.

[2] For those of you who don’t know the prestige economy of the Universities of Australia, USYD is seen as one of the “sandstone universities” which is code for old money and high standing. Located in the inner west of Sydney, it’s a beautiful sprawling campus with a long history of housing the elite, future leaders and has a general tone of the well-to-do.

[3] The western suburbs of Sydney are coded as working class/”bogan” and have a rich history of becoming community centres for various waves of migration. It also houses some of the most spectacular failures in the government’s attempts at social housing. I grew up in Campbelltown, which is on the far south-western edge of Sydney, which when I grew up there was largely an entrenched white poverty, indigenous folk and islanders. Post the housing crisis in Sydney, it has bloomed into a dizzyingly diverse community with all the teething pains associated with swift demographic shifts (see the Camden anti-muslim rallies for example)

[4] People from the Western suburbs of Sydney are often referred to as westies

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Beau Newham

Beau Newham is a writer, development worker and queer activist based in Melbourne on Kulin Nation lands.